This is a series on theological variety. Diversity in theology has been part of Christian faith from the very start. A modern movement is growing which embraces and appreciates it instead of dividing and quitting over it. Find the intro here: Intro
The Bible is “God’s Word.” Just about every Christian can agree on that. But what does that even mean? You may be surprised that there is a lot of theological variety on what it actually implies for Scripture to be the Word of God.
And “implies” is the right word. Scripture isn’t often precise or straight forward when explaining God – who is mysterious and beyond our understanding anyways. It implies all sorts of things, from how the Trinity coexists to how atonement work to, yes, what it means that Scripture is God’s Word.
Many Christians grow up assuming “true Christians” believe exactly like they do – and it can be quite a shock to learn there are billions of Christians practicing millions of varieties of the faith in hundreds of thousands of churches in thousands of denominations. There is real, substantial disagreement on numerous tenets of faith that creates a beautify and diverse Christianity.
The fact is, your theology isn’t perfect. No one knows God perfectly, so we already know you’re wrong on some points. And other Christians are wrong on some points as well. And God covers you as well as other Believers in grace that is bigger than theological misunderstandings.
It is important to discuss because theological pride is the likely the largest problem in Christianity today. Christians have a reputation for being judgmental and it is unfortunately well deserved – to many try to decide who is and isn’t a Christian based on their own narrow interpretation of what Scripture implies.
God Breathed? What does that even mean?
Scripture implies things and needs to be interpreted, even when Scripture talks about itself. The Bible says Scripture is “God breathed,” sure! But let’s be honest, that could mean just about anything. It’s an ancient idiomatic expression for which we have no modern counterpart, so it’s open to a rather wide range of interpretation.
If I were to say something is “Jared breathed” that could mean anything from “Jared said it” to “That has the flavor of something Jared would say” and neither of those interpretations have anything to do with whether the thing that was said was credible, let alone perfect and flawless.
Because we know God is flawless, we assume the Bible is flawless – it’s His “Word” right? But Creation is hardly flawless, and humanity is particularly sinful and those were made by the same perfect God. We know that things God has created are not flawless, and we also know imperfect humans were the tool of recording and translating and copying Scripture over thousands of years in multiple languages.
So if you are worried about problems and inconsistencies and false information you find occasionally in Scripture, don’t stress – believing every single thing in Scripture is perfect and true is only one of many legitimate, Scriptural positions you can take on Scripture. Over 2,000 years Christians have taken three overall approaches to the question of whether God’s Word is flawless. Let’s take a look:
Christians in the Inerrancy view believe Scripture is without error – of any kind. As God’s Word, God cannot err therefore Scripture must be perfect. The Bible is more than simply “inspired” – it is authorized by God and must be correct on everything it says about history and science as well as Christian belief and living.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) is a good example: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teachings, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”
This view tends to have a more literal approach of many passages – for most Inerrancy advocates, the world had to be made in several literal days and the flood had to be worldwide.
How do they handle seeming contradictions? First, to remind that God’s Word was perfect in its original text – so some mistakes we find today may be due to minor errors in copying and translations. Second, the Inerrancy view doesn’t mean the Bible can never be misunderstood – so if you point out that the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed, you’ll be reminded that within context, it was the smallest seed a farmer in 1st century Jewish agrarian society would plant.
Inerrancy persists however because it seems a logical extension of God’s nature and because we would like to believe God wouldn’t give us substandard material to work with. We all like to know that the authority we are basing our lives and even eternal salvation on is absolutely true and so we want the Bible to be as perfect as the God who wrote it.
For many, inerrancy goes to far. First, imperfect humans recorded God’s words so it is bound to have mistakes. Second, we have no authoritative evidence that God dictated the words in some miraculous, magical way. Third, there seem to be all sorts of mistakes, conflicts, sweeping generalizations and such that make a lot more sense if you admit that humans writing from a human perspective did the best they could but sometimes included pre-scientific era ideas about the world or historical errors due to their lack of perspective.
For these reasons and more, a middle-of-the-road approach is that the Bible is “infallible” – without mistakes in any area of Christian faith or practice. It has, without error, everything we need to know to come to saving faith in Jesus – but that’s all we really require. This view helps smooth out minor discrepancies by admitting the Bible is more “inspired” than “dictated.”
God gave the writers concepts and they put them into their own words; God supplied resources, but they were adapted and compiled according to the needs of the writers and their audiences. Many Old Testament stories weren’t put down until centuries later – like the book of Judges being written by an author during the time of the Jewish monarchy, or much of the Old Testament being gathered during the years of Exile.
And in that process of oral tradition gathered, recorded, compiled, copied and shared there are bound to be inaccuracies. Look at all the footnotes in your Bible – we often don’t even know what the original Hebrew and Greek words meant or even which version was the original one. So it is impossible to prove the Bible is perfect; inerrancy is an opinion of faith, a religious preference, not something taught by Scripture itself.
While many Christian groups have an “inerrant” view officially in belief, they live out the “infallible” view in practice – not feeling a need to defend or surrender their faith over every single apparent discrepancy in Scripture. Scripture is a tool of God to convey a message, the Good News, and despite any historical or scientific mistakes, the spiritual parts that matter are sound.
Inerrancy is one side of a spectrum – “every single thing must be correct.” In the middle of this spectrum is infallibility, “every spiritual thing must be correct.” The side of the spectrum opposite inerrancy is “inspired.” For many Believers, affirming the Bible is God’s Word and inspired by God doesn’t mean it has to be infallible or inerrant.
After all, most authors of worship songs would say they were “inspired” by God but clearly don’t mean God gave the song to them word by word, note by note. This view values and focuses on the human contribution to Scripture – God impressed things upon them and they expressed them in their own art forms and word choices, cultural norms and such.
Think of it this way – “Revelation” doesn’t seem to be a word for word dictated message, but rather a dream John had and then wrote down what he remembered and in words he chose. Heaven surely is more glorious than words can describe, so we’ll have to forgive him if he wasn’t precisely correct on details – like is every gate made out of a literal single pearl? Or was he using oneness and pearl as symbolic language to attempt describing something insanely beautiful and utterly indescribable?
God inspired biblical authors to share some of his ideas but they may have contributed some of their own. Sarah Bessey, author of “Out of Sorts,” discusses this as her view – that a lot of the darker books like Judges likely contain not only things God inspired but also the things humans included. So the stories that make some of us worry about God’s character are quite possibly people’s misunderstandings of what God really wanted for them – think of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, the Canaanite genocide, and no short list of violent massacres.
We ask if that was really God’s will. Someone on the “inspired” side of the spectrum would say, “Probably not – it’s just what they thought God’s will was with their imperfect understanding.” When Scripture talks about itself, it tends to use vague phrases like “inspired” or “God-breathed”. Advocates of the inspired view remind us that the only other thing that is God-breathed is… humans. And we’re far from perfect, so we shouldn’t expect Scripture to be.
Many charismatics hold this view and stress that since the Bible can contain historical, scientific and theological errors from the humans who wrote it, it is essential to allow the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding of it. People on the inerrant side of the spectrum tend to leave the Holy Spirit out of their theology and tend to make an idol of Scripture, treating it with worshipful attitudes and attributing God’s characteristics to it. Sometimes a healthy reminder is important that we are saved by God, not a book. Scripture is a love letter, not the Bride’s Lover.
Love and Respect
When you think on which view seems to fit your own experience and understanding, just keep in mind that we often demand a precision and accuracy of Scripture that was foreign to the original authors. Our modern culture carries expectations that the ancients never intended to deliver upon. When we read a biography, we expect full coverage, minute details, equal time to equal periods of their life, and absolute honesty. Then look at the Gospels, written like other ancient biographies – two don’t even mention anything before Jesus was 30 and half of each is dedicated to the last week of his life. CS Lewis said, “That Scripture gives true answers to all the questions which one might ask, I don’t agree. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisioned by the ancients.”
Breaking down the three views to overall perspectives might leave a lot of options and nuances out, as well. Recognized that there is a large diversity within the orthodox, historical, and modern Christian traditions regarding how to view Scripture. Learn to respect other views and hold your own opinion humbly. As the chart below shows, the spectrum can be broken up even further with some people preferring to label their view as intuition, illumination, dynamic, verbal plenary, and even dictation!
With all this in mind, I’d like to close with a reminder. We are called to respect each other and we are called to love each other, so much so that “love” is to be the defining quality by which we are recognized. In John 13:35, Jesus says EVERYONE will know who is and isn’t His disciples by our love for one another. If you look around at Christianity today, there isn’t a whole lot of love between us and most of our poor treatment of each other hinges on differences of opinion on theological stances that Scripture simply doesn’t make clear or leave a wide range of interpretation available.
No matter which view you take, remember not to make an idol of your own interpretations and opinions. Learn to respect other Believers who differ in how they understand the wide variety of things God sought to convey through all the vast diversity Scripture contains.